School of Seven Bells – SVIIB
When Alejandra Deheza and Benjamin Curtis started work on School of Seven Bells’ fourth album in the summer of 2012, they definitely had no thought that it would be the last record that they would write together. After Curtis developed T-cell lymphoblastic lymphoma and died in late 2013 aged only 35, that was sadly what it became.
Deheza took some time away from the material and eventually left New York for Los Angeles, resolving to complete the record they’d started alone. The result, SVIIB, is a moving synth-pop paean to the pair’s powerful relationship and a fitting finale to their School of Seven Bells project.
If there are any fears that this will make SVIIB a massive downer, opener Ablaze dispatches them all quickly, a glorious rush of swirling synthesisers, explosive percussion and Deheza’s airy wordless harmonies. While School of Seven Bells’ earlier albums sometimes laboured with lofty concepts (see: 2012’s Ghostory), here Deheza finds a rich emotional hook by zeroing in her history with Curtis, in which their creative relationship briefly turned to romance before reverting to a deep friendship. Ablaze shows Deheza setting SVIIB’s thoughtful tone from the off, deftly handling its unavoidably sad subtext (its first lyrics are a devastating ‘How could I have known?) to make the album a lush and life-affirming expression of acceptance, care and gratitude.
Under the Influence: School of Seven Bells' Benjamin Curtis
SVIIB’s warm atmosphere continues in On My Heart ,which sketches a relationship that was often as complicated as it was satisfying. ‘When you call me on the phone and you hear I’m not alone/It doesn’t mean that things have gone wrong,’ Deheza speak-sings over a restless backbeat. ‘There was a you before me, there was a me before you and that’s the way it goes.’
‘With me your love’s safe,’ she eventually concludes as the song swells and church bells chime. ‘Open your eyes, love, you’ve got me crying,’ she sighs in the soaring ballad Open Your Eyes, a heart-breaking line that could apply as much to a recalcitrant lover as to someone on their hospital bed. The album is full of affecting moments like these, and shows School of Seven Bells pair refining their song-writing style to its peak.
While SVIIB is an immersive, reflective affair, it isn’t averse to switching up its rhythms. A Thousand Times More opens with strummed guitar before making way to danceable electro pop, while Elias fully embraces Deheza’s dewy-eyed memories to create a slow burning sparkler, guided by producer Justin Mendal-Johnsen, responsible for M83’s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming: ‘Do you remember when, in the morning hours, how we would watch the stars play their songs?’ Signals is the most sinister and seductive track here, Deheza referencing magic, snakes and guns over a jerky Latin-flecked disco beat before a queasy overdriven guitar storms into the chorus, a little high in the mix. ‘There’s no game in what I’m feeling,’ she harmonises as the instruments drop off.
Despite Deheza’s best efforts, the scars of SVIIB’s making are occasionally audible. Music Takes Me is a playful cut led by an insistently funky synth line, clanking feedback and psychedelic guitar: ‘These days I’m feeling the sun come through… I just want to say thank you, thank you for all you gave,’ Deheza sings blissfully to her former creative partner in a patchwork of a song that was unfinished at the time of Curtis’s death. Confusion is the most meditative and tremulous track on SVIIB, recorded live on the one occasion that Curtis was allowed to leave the hospital while undergoing chemo as an inpatient, and the last song the pair wrote in the same room.
Fear is evident in Deheza’s voice as she intones over Curtis’s dreamy organ which scuds by slowly like clouds: ‘Confusion weighs so heavy, and I understand nothing of these changes,’ she quivers, sounding scared but oddly serene before the speaker stops rotating and the clouds dissipate. It’s a devastating realisation in an ethereal track and makes for SVIIB’s most hard-hitting moment.
Thankfully, This is Our Time ends SVIIB as an album (and a band) with a burst of optimism, undercut by ticking percussion: ‘Our time is indestructible,’ Deheza asserts before the song winds through Curtis’s searingly bright guitar line. As final statements go, it’s a powerful one, and a credit to Deheza’s resilience in her dedication to finishing her and Curtis’s shared vision.
For a record that was a triumph just to complete and release in the first place, SVIIB is an excellent, joyous album which never gets overwhelmed by the circumstances surrounding its creation, and shows School of Seven Bells moving on to the musical afterlife at the peak of their powers. SVIIB is not so much a tombstone as a monument to the things we live for in the first place.